SOUTH BEND — It was pretty easy for me to decide which group to follow in the first round of the U.S. Senior Open Thursday.
Of all the legendary players walking the Warren Golf Course on Notre Dame’s campus this weekend, Tom Watson might be the most. The eight-time major champion is widely considered one of the greatest golfers of all time. He’s mentioned in the same breath as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods when talking about impact they had on the game of golf.
I’m too young to have experienced Watson play in his prime, but I remember watching him come within inches of winning the 2009 Open Championship at the ripe age of 59 years old. I remember being on the edge of my seat when Watson lined up an eight-foot putt for the championship on the 72nd hole — and so sad when it bent left of the hole. He then lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink.
Needless to say, I wanted to see Watson play in-person. When the tee times were announced, I checked to see when Watson teed off. He was set for 8:41 a.m., along with two other names I noticed: Tom Kite and Retief Goosen. After some brief research, I noticed that all three men had won U.S. Opens in the past: Watson in 1982, Kite in 1992, and Goosen in 2001 and 2004. I knew this had to be the group I followed.
I’ve only been to one other competitive golf tournament in my life. I’ve never actually walked with a group before for an entire round. This was going to be a pretty new experience for me, one I was excited about.
Of course, Mother Nature decided to make my first walking experience a sweaty one. Rain late Wednesday night and into Thursday morning left the course damp. With temperatures expected to hit the high 80s, this meant there’d be a lot of humidity. Initially, it wasn’t too bad. By the time the group reached the halfway point of their round, though, a spectator next to me said, ‘Can you feel the humidity?’ Yes, ma’am. Yes I can.
Since they teed off so early, their round wasn’t televised. This allowed the 100-plus fans following the trio to see shots a television audience wouldn’t. Goosen had an amazing chip-in from the sand to save par at 11 — the group started on the back nine. Then, Watson showed off some of his magic on 14. After his second shot went wide right, he chipped it from the rough on to the fringe. He had two options: putt, or chip. He decided to chip.
Watson buried it, saving par. The crowd erupted. It was like being teleported back to 1982 when Watson won his lone U.S. Open championship at Pebble Beach. If nothing else, I saw Watson pull another fantastic shot off at a major tournament. I was happy.
He then had another moment at the par-3 16th. After Goosen hit his tee shot within eight feet of the hole, Watson one-upped the South African and put his shot within three feet. A tap-in birdie brought Watson back to even.
All three guys hit shots that reminded you of what made them great payers in the first place. Kite sank a 20-footer on 18, bending backwards in hoping it’d help the ball go in. Goosen caught fire on the front nine, ultimately finishing 4-under-par for his round. It was fun to see three major champions do battle on a sunny, humid afternoon in South Bend. Watson finished 1-under, while Kite was 4-over-par.
What was even more fun was seeing the interactions between the three both on the course and with the fans. After his birdie at 16, Watson waved to some little kids walking to 17. While they were waiting for the group ahead of them on hole 4 to finish, Kite and Watson were having a conversation. You couldn’t hear much of what they were saying, but an occasional smile or laugh came from the two. Oh, the stories those two 69-year-olds probably have. They then held an “auction” over if Goosen would hit the ball into the fairway again — it got as high as 600 dollars.
And finally, after the round was over, Watson signed some autographs for the 20 or more fans that hung around for his autograph. He took pictures with people and smiled as the fans told him how much they loved him.
After he was done signing autographs, I asked Watson if it ever gets old — the fame, the fan interaction, all of it. His response?
“I am getting old.”
Before I could clarify what I asked, he was riding away on his cart. And so that’s how my first interaction with Tom Watson went.
Austin Hough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinHoughTGN